Herman Cain: One Freaky Dude?

After some impressive displays of loyalty, a segment of the Republican base is losing patience with Herman Cain. A Reuters/ipsos poll conducted several days after the media reported allegations that Cain had sexually harassed former employees showed the percentage of Republicans who viewed him favorably had dropped to 57% from 66%. A 53% majority of all respondents — a pool that included Democrats as well as Republicans — reported they believed the allegations against Cain.

But this was before the case against Cain acquired a face, a name and a storyline. Yesterday, Sharon Bialek supplied all three. With attorney Gloria Allred at her elbow, Bialek told reporters how she’d sought Cain’s help in regaining her job at the National Restaurant Association. In Bialek’s words, as the two were sitting in Cain’s parked car following dinner, he slid his hand “under my skirt and reached for my genitals. He also grabbed my head and brought it toward his crotch.”

When Bialek balked, Cain delivered the line that has already inspired a bumper sticker, and might well take its place alongside “I didn’t inhale” in some big book of quotations from American politicians. He asked her: “You want a job, right?”

Some observers, including Slate’s David Weigel and lawyer Zerlina Maxwell, are suggesting that Cain’s advances, if Bialek’s account can be believed, qualify as a sexual assault. I wouldn’t know. In my non-juror’s eyes, they seem simply crass and oafish, and in ways oddly resonant with Cain’s entire approach to campaigning.

To put it charitably, Cain has serious taste and tone issues. In his 9/11 tribute video, he croons “God Bless America” over footage of the hijacked planes slamming into the Twin Towers, and over audio of horrified eyewitness screams. The effect is a little like hearing “Hey, Good Lookin’” played at a model’s open-casket funeral. His strictly partisan messages are even tackier. In this radio ad, run by America’s PAC, Cain plays the voice of the Republican superego, chastising a Democrat for being unemployed, for cheating on his wife, and for favoring abortion because “if you make a little mistake with one of your ho’s, you’ll want to dispose of that problem toute de suite, no questions asked.”

If Cain were a self-conscious provocateur, all of this might seem daring and edgy. But I don’t think that’s it at all. Cain’s a button-down company man with a bachelors in math and a masters in computer science. There just happens to be an enormous disconnect between what he finds compelling, tasteful and persuasive, and what the vast run of humanity does. In this by-now infamous TV spot, Cain campaign manager Mark Block, a cipher to most of the voting public, recites a few banalities into the camera and chases them with a cloud of cigarette smoke. A reassuring pat on the hand to smokers like me, or perhaps to Big Tobacco? Maybe, but that can’t explain the spot’s conclusion, where Cain’s face breaks into a weirdly exalted smile. He ends up looking less like the cat who swallowed the canary than like the Mona Lisa, if she had swallowed a canary.

If you throw in Cain’s joke about protecting America’s borders with an electrified fence, he starts to look like an American edition of Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Both have sizable private fortunes; both crack jokes to make the masses cringe. Berlusconi, for example, once told Martin Schulz, a German member of the European Parliament, that he should play a concentration camp guard in a film. When accused of having an affair with a 17-year-old belly dancer who performed under the name “Ruby Rubacori,” he told the press, “It’s better to be passionate for beautiful girls than to be gay.”

But Berlusconi’s insolence has always looked calculated, his way of reminding opponents that impeachment or rejection at the polls will mean nothing worse than a return to private life as a mobbed-up media mogul. Cain’s gaffes seem to signify some basic, possibly congenital deficiency in timing and bienséance. Maybe math-and-computer people just see the world through eyes unique to their species. If Cain invited, say, a Vulcan girl to a private screening of his ads, she might find him a cross between Churchill and Lord Byron, provided Cain picked the right moment in her seven-year sexual response cycle to make his move.

Well, Berlusconi’s on his way out. Anyway, these are no more than the conceits of a blogger (who, full disclosure, performed lousily on the math section of his SATs and GREs). I can’t say how much truth, if any, is in Bialek’s story, but it follows logically to me that any man who tries to seduce America by these means might well try to seduce a woman without kisses or compliments.


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